A Week in the Woods: My Appalachian Trail 101 – The Old Man in the Clearing

Bly Gap and historic oak

Today was to be the culmination of my hike.  The zenith.  The raison d’etre.  So in my excitement, I didn’t sleep well at Wheeler Knob (my sticky, salt-encrusted skin was another reason).

I rolled out of my tent at first light, quickly packed my belongings, and slung my pack on my back.  Actually, “slung” isn’t correct; my technique by then was to prop my pack against a tree or boulder, plop my butt on the ground in front, slip my arms through the shoulder straps, then lean forward and slowly hoist myself erect – carefully, or my oversized sleeping bag would spill to one side – then buckle the belt, which became increasingly loose as my waistline shrunk.

After leaving camp, it was a brisk two-mile jaunt to the state line.  I almost missed it.  The indicator was a large tree at the edge of the trail.  It had a rusty metal tube nailed to it, and a simple wooden sign no bigger than a shoebox with “NC/GA” carved in it.

I’d made it!  Goal accomplished.  What a huge relief.  I’d hiked 75.2 miles for this.  The rest of my hike would be an afterthought.  There was a small, worn area opposite the tree where previous hikers had rested or celebrated.  I stood here and took a photo to commemorate the occasion – my own quiet ceremony.  Then I continued on to Bly Gap, just 0.2 miles away.

Bly Gap was on a slight incline at a fairly open trail intersection. About 50 yards from the intersection was a large gnarled live oak tree with its trunk stretched on the ground, as if tired from holding its heavy load.

According to my guide notes, this tree is believed to be the oldest in the Carolinas, used at one time “to spot the line between Georgia and North Carolina.”  I later learned that the colonial line was drawn in 1663.  My God… before the founding fathers were even born!  Two years after Charles II restored the English monarchy.  During the French reign of the Sun King, Louis XIV.  Goodness knows how many years the tree had lived before 1663.

The old fellow allowed me to prop my pack against his withered trunk, and I sat down to savor the moment.  I’d been pushing myself for days, had only occasionally stopped for reflection, so I devoted some time here.  A large meadow dipped into a valley in front, and the sun came streaming in.  A few feathery clouds graced the blue sky.  I thought about the old oak, and the thousands of AT hikers who’d also rested here over the years.  I also thought of how lucky I was to be healthy enough to get this far.  Most of all, I thought of my dad, who’d been gone for almost seven years.  I don’t think of him as much anymore, but I still miss him greatly.  He liked camping and history, also.  I know he’d be pleased with my small achievement.

Just a modest wooden sign in the middle of the woods, but for me it signified 75 miles of hard hiking

Just a modest wooden sign in the middle of the woods, but for me it signified 75 miles of hard hiking

Just before being transformed into Rip Van Winkle, I said goodbye to grandfather oak and immediately began another ascent.  This one was very steep, and I had to stop at least a half-dozen times to catch my breath.  One thing I noticed in NC was the sudden disappearance of poison ivy, a plant for which I held great animosity, and which was all over the Georgia AT.  I wondered if the NC trail volunteers sprayed the poison ivy with herbicide.  But I’m sure this was forbidden.

I eventually reached the summit – the last major summit of my hike – and soon entered Sassafras Gap, a long, flat stretch with lots of overhanging rhododendron that offered a nice, shady canopy.  This tree was pretty common throughout my hike, but it often proved troublesome, because the low-lying branches continually snagged my pack.

Feeling good, I started singing again.  I think I’d already sung the entire second album by The Band (“When I get off ‘a this mountain, ya know where I’m gonna go…”).

Near Muskrat Creek Shelter I took a couple photos, one looking down on a scenic Carolina valley town, and another of the southern range of mountains I’d recently traversed.  All I could see was a sea of blue-green peaks and valleys, stretching ever southward into the mist.  I couldn’t believe I’d covered all that distance in seven days.

But the AT wasn’t going to let me down easy.  After Muskrat Creek I hit another stretch of jagged rocks, which conjured memories of the rock slide at Red Clay Gap.  Near the beginning of this headache, I heard some voices up ahead.  It was two young guys on a SOBO section trek to Tray Gap.  I told them I’d come from there, and that they were the only people I’d seen other than Chester (I later calculated this distance at 25 miles).  They were surprised, telling me they’d hiked the AT once before and come across “hundreds” of hikers.  Go figure.

Another thing I hadn’t seen in a while was a mirror.  I remembered a scene in the Steve McQueen prison escape movie Papillon, and I jokingly asked them how I looked.

“Ya look pretty darn good!!” laughed the one guy.  This made me feel a little better.

Just a few miles ahead I reached USFS 71, at Deep Gap, and had lunch at a small parking lot.  A lone SUV with Orange County, Florida plates sat in the lot.  I assumed this might be the guys I’d just met.

I pulled out my guide and studied the remaining mileage.  Standing Indian Campground was 3.7 miles ahead, at the end of a blue-blaze called Kimsey Creek Trail.  The AT itself, however, looped northeast 21.8 miles, taking in both Albert Mountain and Standing Indian Mountain before joining the campground road.

It was a no-brainer: follow Kimsey Creek.  I’d reached my goal of completing the Georgia section.  I was bruised, burned, blistered, dirty, smelly, and I missed 21st century comforts.  I’d be finishing a day early, on Saturday.  But if I could contact my wife, maybe she could change motel arrangements.

Pretty ground cover

I saw a lot of this attractive ground cover, dark green with beautiful vein patterns. Does anyone know the name?

I popped open my cell phone and again saw “No Service.”  I was running out of time.  This meant waiting till I reached the public campground, which according to the guide had a pay phone.  I’d brought my cell phone only reluctantly, for emergency purposes.  But this was a minor emergency, wasn’t it?

Fiddling with my cell phone, I thought of certain hikers who had no qualms about hauling their electronics with them on the trail.  Here’s my view on that subject:

I understand the mantra “Everyone has their own hike.”  And I know that devices that keep us “connected” can be beneficial.  But some hikers carried not only cell phones, but smartphones, tablets, GPS… one guy even had a laptop computer so he could immediately update his blog!  Doesn’t this compromise the purpose of the wilderness experience?  Isn’t the idea to jump off the grid?  To have a more organic experience by getting closer to nature and celebrating simplicity?

Maybe this isn’t a priority with some hikers.  Maybe for them it’s about the exercise, physical challenge, or scenery.  I think the Appalachian Mountains, and the trail that runs through it, are about this too, but also a lot more.  I was anxious to return home, but while here I at least wanted to blend with the environment.  Not snub it.

I’m not a purist.  Some modern conveniences are almost essential (stoves, fuel, flashlights, packaged food).  And a camera is nice for capturing memories.  But it’s not essential to be “wired in” all the time.  Earlier I touched on my feelings of solitude.  But solitude isn’t the same as loneliness.  It’s part of life, and it’s good because it teaches us to be alone without being lonely.  But constant media diversion diminishes our capacity for healthy solitude.  That’s one of the reasons I did this hike.

Sometimes I think I’m living out of time.  But even 24-year-old Dustin was amazed at how many of his friends back home regularly disappear into their gadgets.  Talking with him made me feel like I’m not the only one, and it’s not just an age thing.

Anyway… off my soapbox and back on the trail.  My new goal was Standing Indian Campground.  And blue-blazed Kimsey Creek Trail would lead me there.  It looked like an easy hike.  Probably a wide, flat path across a few fields.  I’d be like smilin’ Joe with his trekking poles.  Then again, more than a few of my assumptions had already exploded.



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